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suffering

April 06, 2011

Sunday, August 27, 2006, the sun beats down steadily but not oppressively on the streets of Pamplona. It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon in Spain, the kind of day siestas were made for.

The traffic on the streets—if you can call the occasional car “traffic”—is also lazy, relaxed and unhurried, with one exception. A silver van speeds down the avenue, pausing only briefly before shooting through a red light.

In the back of the van a young girl is spread out across the seat, her head cradled in her mother’s arms. “I need you to breathe, Allison!” the woman says. “Keep breathing!” But Allison is breathing, the deep breathing that’s past sleep, the coma from which she will not wake up. Or perhaps she has already awakened; perhaps, somewhere between the house and the hospital, her soul slipped away from the presence of her panicked parents and into the calm presence of her Father.

The sun shines on a lazy afternoon in Pamplona as the girl’s parents speed down the road toward the end of their world.


Written in TearsSo begins Luke Veldt’s Written in Tears. That young girl was Allison Veldt, Luke’s thirteen year-old daughter. This book is a journey through the aftermath of that sudden, shocking, unexpected death. Left reeling after Allison died, Veldt found himself looking for answers and for comfort in the words of the Bible. Despite being a pastor and church planter, a man who knows his Bible well, he was still surprised by what he found in God’s Word. As he says in the opening pages of his book, “It took the death of my daughter for me to begin to understand the love of God.”

After Allison’s death, Veldt turned to Psalm 103 and he read it again and again. He read it every day for more than a year. And through that psalm he experienced God’s presence. This book, a short but powerful little volume, shares many of the lessons the Lord taught him through his grief.

January 13, 2011

I don’t know that I’ve ever done something quite like this before, so let’s try something new. A year ago, two days after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I took a stab at suggesting what the late Neil Postman, the author, media theorist and cultural critic, might have to say about it. I suggested that this earthquake was an example of the kind of news that surrounds us today—news that elicits emotion from us, but news we can really do nothing about. In the end, news like this is often barely distinguishable from entertainment to us.

Here we are one year later. I think it’s an interesting exercise to re-read the article and see if any of what I wrote there (again, trying to channel Postman) has proven true.


Haiti

Yesterday, as an aspect of researching the book I’m working on, I read (re-read, actually) Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death. The timing was interesting, coming as it did just one day after the horrifying earthquake in Haiti. Postman’s book deals with media in an age of entertainment and I found many of the lessons he teaches in the book immediately applicable to the situation in Haiti. Let me summarize some of them.

October 18, 2010

Little Black Books is a new series of short volumes written by Scott Petty and published by Matthias Media. This is “a new series of books that get straight to the point on the topics that Christians always have questions about. Not too big, not too fancy, and not at all boring. LBBs are ideal for young Christians (ages 14-20+), but speak biblical truths applicable to any age range.” Scott is a youth minister at Christ Church St Ives in Sydney, and does a good job of addressing tough issues in a way that will appeal to a younger (or relatively young or used-to-be-young) audience.

Each of the books is around 60 - 80 pages, they are relatively inexpensive (about $5 each) and they are attractively put together with distinct, contemporary styling (personally I think they look fantastic).

To this point the series has four titles.

suffering and evilSuffering & Evil - Sooner or later we’re all affected by suffering and evil—sometimes in horrible ways—and we often want to know why. In this short book, Scott Petty guides us through the Old Testament story of Job—a man who suffered excruciating pain and grief without ever knowing why. On the way through, Scott deals with some of the common questions people have about suffering and evil:

  • Why do bad things happen to Christians?
  • Does God cause suffering?
  • Is God in control of suffering and evil?

the bibleThe Bible - On one hand, millions of people turn to the Bible for guidance of some kind; on the other, just as many dismiss it, mock it or ignore it. But how can a book that’s thousands of years old still be relevant today? Scott Petty writes on what the Bible is and the place it should have in the lives of Christians today, and answers some common questions about the Bible:

  • Hasn’t science disproved the Bible?
  • Doesn’t the Bible contradict itself?
  • Can I trust the Bible when I’m making decisions?

September 11, 2010

A few days ago I read through R.C. Sproul’s little book When Worlds Collide. This book was written in early 2002, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Sproul wrote it as a response to those events, as a means of grappling with the difficult questions related to God’s sovereignty and human suffering. As I read the book I was struck by how relevant it remains today, especially since 9/11 is still so real and since so many people still have not really dealt with it in their hearts and minds (and perhaps never will).

It is interesting to trace Sproul’s teaching on the subject. Here I’ll provide just a few quotes that ought to give you a sense of his logic.

The events of 9/11 were a mortal blow to relativism, because the response of Americans and the response of people the world over, after looking at this heinous attack on human life, was the very “unrelativistic” declaration that “This is evil.” … One cannot have such a shocking encounter with pure evil and walk away, saying, “Well, it’s a relative thing.”

*****

If we look carefully at the biblical understanding of God and construct our worldview on this basis, we see that God in His providence is a sovereign God, who not only governs nature and the laws of nature but who raises nations up and brings nations low. Within His providence come both blessing and calamity.

*****

If God did not ordain all things, He would not be sovereign over all things. And if He is not sovereign over all things, then He is not God at all.

*****

God’s ordination of all things does not annihilate human decisions or the forces of nature. Yet at the same time the sovereignty of God stands over every human event.

*****

I do not know why God ordained 9/11, but I know that He did ordain it because if He did not ordain it, it would not have happened. Since it happened, I know for certain that God ordained it in some sense. That is one of the most difficult concepts even for devout Christians to deal with. Yet the concept is found on almost every page of sacred Scripture. It is at the very heart of the Christian faith.

*****

The word “tragedy” presupposes some kind of order or purpose in the world. If the world has purpose and order, then all that occurs in it is meaningful in some respect. The idea of a “senseless tragedy” represents a worldview that is completely incompatible with Christian thought. It assumes that something happens without purpose or without meaning.

*****

Christians do not allow for meaningless events to take place, because at the heart of the Christian worldview is the idea that everything in history has a purpose in the mind of Almighty God. God is a purposive God; He is not chaotic.

*****

In the final analysis, that which defines the Christian worldview is the glory of the cross. The cross remains the symbol for all that is loved and embraced in the Christian worldview. It is also the symbol for all that the pagan worldview despises. The cross is the symbol that causes worlds to collide. It provokes a war that will not end until the consummation of the Kingdom of God.

August 30, 2010

The ninth chapter of John describes a scene from the life of Jesus and one that was all too common. I wrote about it just a little bit last Monday (God’s Losers and Gainers) but want to return to it today. Let me set the scene. Jesus is walking from one place to another somewhere in the city of Jerusalem and passes by a man who has been blind from birth. During his ministry Jesus encountered hundreds of blind people and countless others who were lame or deaf or otherwise suffering from the effects of the Fall. We read endless examples of his sovereignty in healing these people, in touching them or spitting upon them or in simply commanding that the disability leave them

John 9 is just a little bit different. As he walks by this man, his disciples ask a question. “Rabbi,” they ask, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples assume that this man’s blindness is a punishment that has been justly given him as a curse for his sin or perhaps for the sin of his parents. Somehow they just know that some action has necessitated this punishment. Jesus shocks them by answering, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” In other words, he says “Neither—he was born this way so that God’s works should be shown in him.”

As I looked into this passage I came across Matthew Henry’s commentary on it. Henry does just an amazing job of showing what God was teaching here, what he wasn’t teaching here, and how it matters to you and me.

[Sufferings] are sometimes intended purely for the glory of God, and the manifesting of his works. God has a sovereignty over all his creatures and an exclusive right in them, and may make them serviceable to his glory in such a way as he thinks fit, in doing or suffering; and if God be glorified, either by us or in us, we were not made in vain. This man was born blind, and it was worth while for him to be so, and to continue thus long dark, that the works of God might be manifest in him.

Henry says here that God makes people serviceable to his glory and that he does so in the way he thinks fit. He may let us serve him in our actions or in our suffering. Regardless, as long as God can be glorified in us, then our lives are not in vain and our suffering is not in vain. No situation is useless or hopeless or irredeemable if God uses it to glorify himself. This man was born blind and suffered with blindness for a long time so that God could make himself known through him.

That is, First, That the attributes of God might be made manifest in him: his justice in making sinful man liable to such grievous calamities; his ordinary power and goodness in supporting a poor man under such a grievous and tedious affliction, especially that his extraordinary power and goodness might be manifested in curing him. Note, The difficulties of providence, otherwise unaccountable, may be resolved into this—God intends in them to show himself, to declare his glory, to make himself to be taken notice of.

August 23, 2010

A couple of years ago Paul (my pastor and co-elder at Grace Fellowship Church) wrote about an article in the Canadian media which stated that “The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada will recommend next month that all expectant mothers undergo screening for fetal abnormalities such as Down’s syndrome—not just those over the age of 35, as is the practice.”

Dr. Andre Lalonde, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Ottawa and the executive vice president of the SOGC, said the society decided to issue the recommendation so that a greater number of women would have the option to terminate their pregnancies should fetal abnormalities be detected.

“Yes, it’s going to lead to more termination, but it’s going to be fair to these women who are 24 who say, ‘How come I have to raise an infant with Down’s syndrome, whereas my cousin who was 35 didn’t have to?’” Dr. Lalonde said. “We have to be fair to give women a choice.”

“The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada will recommend that all expectant women younger than 40 be given nuchal translucency screening, followed by genetic counselling and amniocentesis if their risk for Down’s syndrome appears high.” Based on this article, Paul wrote:

I reject this proposal from personal experience. Although we rejected amniocentesis as an option in our son’s pregnancy (for the simple reason it might have killed him), we were given indicators through non-invasive testing that there might be a genetic problem. Readers of my blog will know that my son was born with a genetic defect labelled Williams Syndrome—a full-orbed physical and mental disability.

Is my son an accident? A faltering of the progressive cycle of evolution? A drain on society and its money? A thing not as valuable as a fully-functioning “normal” person?

My son is my flesh and blood and his worth is bound up in the fact he was made in the image and likeness of God, knit together in his mother’s womb and held together by the grace and power of Jesus Christ right now. If he never moved a muscle, never spoke a word, never made my life happier at any point, he would be no less valuable to the One who made Him. And no less valuable to me.

One does not have to be at our church for long, or to be with Paul and his family for long, to see how much joy this  boy brings to his parents, his sisters, and his church family. He is greatly valued and treasured because he is a treasure of great value. But in a sense this is largely irrelevant when it comes to this innate value and worth; the value of life is in the fact that it comes from God and is not affected by our desires, whims or preferences. Paul and his wife had no right to interfere with that life (and, thankfully, had no desire to interfere with it).

July 06, 2010

Here, for your listening pleasure, is episode 11 of The Connected Kingdom. This week David and I have Mike Pohlman as a guest on the show. You may know Mike from his work with The Gospel Coalition. Mike has just accepted a call to pastor a church in Washington and we talk to him about that new opportunity. But we also talk to him about his family. Mike’s wife Julia has been diagnosed with cancer and David and I have both been blessed to see how the Pohlman’s have dealt with this difficult situation. So as you listen, be sure to listen to the end (or at least to skip forward to around the 16-minute mark where we begin to talk about that).

June 27, 2010

Here is a prayer for the sick or for the spiritually-distressed. It is drawn from the Canadian and American Reformed Church web site. This is a prayer that comes from the perspective of the one so-afflicted and I don’t think it is necessarily meant as a pastoral prayer. It is worth changing the first person plural (we) to the first person singular (I) since in that way it seems to be a little bit more pointed, a little more personal. What I particularly like about it is that it allows the possibility (though it does not demand it) that suffering is a form of chastisement from God. It celebrates God’s sovereignty and his goodness even through suffering.

February 14, 2010

Surprised by SufferingBlogs often have a living quality to them, where an author picks up older content, improves it, and posts it again. I’ve been known to do this and have seen plenty of other bloggers do the same. And why not, really. The medium lends itself well to that kind of change and growth and evolution. Occasionally those who write books have the opportunity to do the same thing, to take an older book, improve it, add to it, and print it again. Such is the case with R.C. Sproul’s Surprised by Suffering. First released by Tyndale House in 1988, it has subsequently be expanded and re-released by Reformation Trust, typically a sign that the rights to the book had reverted back to the author.

January 14, 2010

Yesterday, as an aspect of researching the book I’m working on, I read (re-read, actually) Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death. The timing was interesting, coming as it did just one day after the horrifying earthquake in Haiti. Postman’s book deals with media in an age of entertainment and I found many of the lessons he teaches in the book immediately applicable to the situation in Haiti. Let me summarize some of them.

Our television culture grew out of the age of telegraphy. The great idea in the age of the telegraph was “that transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.” While there was a time when only Haitians would have known about the disaster, today, in our rapidly-shrinking world, it is immediately visible from pole-to-pole. But telegraphy did more than make the world much smaller. It unexpectedly “destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse.”

We now have context-free information; “that is, the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.” And this is exactly what we are seeing today. News of the disaster is a valuable commodity which is why the top reporters from the top networks have all hustled to Haiti to gather information and, even more importantly, to show themselves within the disaster zone. The value of the information being sent to us is not in action but in the information itself.

We cannot overrate the importance of the images we are seeing on the screens before us (and truly they are both moving and horrifying). “In a peculiar way, the photograph was the perfect complement to the flood of telegraphic news-from-nowhere that threatened to submerge readers in a sea of facts from unknown places about strangers with unknown faces. For the photograph gave a concrete reality to the strange-sounding datelines, and attached faces to unknown names. Thus it provided the illusion, at least, that ‘the news’ had a connection to something within one’s sensory experience. It created an apparent context for the ‘news of the day.’ And the ‘news of the day’ created a context for the photograph. … But the sense of the context created by the partnership of photograph and headline was, of course, entirely illusory.” These photographs arouse our sympathy and somehow make us feel like we have more of a context to understand the disaster. It is not just an earthquake now, but a true disaster for the sad and terrified faces we see in photographs. We now feel like we are somehow attached to the information we are receiving, at least in a way we would not be were we only to read about it.

Yet what do we really know? “Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them. … The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the language of headlines—sensational, fragmented, impersonal.” Looking at photographs and reading a few headlines is knowledge of but not knowledge about.

“Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. This fact is the principle legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the ‘information-action ratio.’” “In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action.” As we moved away from a typographic world into a telegraphic and television world (and now into a digital world), information became separated from action. “For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.” This is a kind of information glut that makes us unable to react to all the information available to us or to do anything about most of it. Were we to actively respond to every situation and disaster that we learn about, we would be constantly in motion and constantly bankrupt. “For the first time, we were sent information which answered no question we had asked, and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply.” We have become impotent to react in a meaningful way to the information we consume. “We have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.” What do you intend to do about the disaster in Haiti?

Three days from now we will have moved on. Maybe it will take four or five. But honestly, after the weekend, few of us will ever think of Haiti again. The next news story will come along and Haiti will be relegated to history. But three days from now and a week from now, the situation in Haiti will be far worse than it is today. The devastation will be more complete. The pain will be greater. The country has been devastated and it will take years to recover. At the end of the year when the best photographs of 2010 are revealed, the photos of Haiti, that make us weep today, will be nearly forgotten. By then they will be old news, eleven and a half months removed from the headlines. We’ll think, “Oh right, I remember that.” And then we will scroll down to the next photo.

Postman calls the world brought about and fostered by television a “peek-a-boo world” “where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.”

And isn’t that what the Haiti earthquake is for most of us? It is entertainment. That sounds cold but it is exactly the case. If we turn on the television and watch those images and do nothing about it before moving on to the next news item, have we not merely been entertained?

In one regard I have to turn from Postman. Postman, though he knew his Bible well, was not a Christian and did not understand the power of prayer. Though we may be impotent to act, to actually go to Haiti and give aid, we can ask God to accomplish his purposes, even through so devastating a situation. We can pray for the nation and its people. We should pray for them, even, and especially for brothers in sisters in Christ who live in that country. We should pray that as people from around the world head to Haiti to feed the hungry and heal the sick, that they would take the gospel with them. And we can consider giving financially to credible organizations that will be involved in relief efforts (such as Compassion). It turns out that we are not entirely impotent in the aftermath of this great disaster.

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